An intricate mural depicts the massive armies of Houliman and Phralak-Phralam marching to rescue Nang Sida from Hapkhanasouane. Yet another vibrant work shows Jotiyu failing to save Nang Sida. These names may seem alien, part of a foreign tongue. However, it may come as a surprise that these seemingly tortuous names regularly spring up in colourful folk tales, grandma’s bedtime stories and temple legends across India. These are the Laotian names for popular characters from the Ramayana — so Hanuman becomes Houliman, Ram and Lakshman are known as Phralam and Phralak, Sita becomes Nang Sida, while Ravana is known as Hapkhanasouane in Laos. The parallels among the various versions of Ramayana scattered across Southeast Asia will form a part of the upcoming lecture in New Delhi by Alan Potkin, scholar from the Northern Illinois University, US.
The focus of the talk will be on the pathbreaking project, spearheaded by Potkin, to digitally replicate the lost 33 murals depicting the Laotian version of the Ramayana at the Vat Oub Mong, a Theravada Buddhist monastery in Vientiane, Laos. Between December 11 and 13, 2,000 the people of Ban Oup Mong gathered for the festive demolition of the vihaan or the old image hall at the monastery to be replaced with a new vihaan. This unfortunately led to the destruction of the interiors as well which were completely covered with beautiful murals rendered in 1938 by brilliant amateur artist Thit Panh and seven novices within a month. Also, the rise of communism in countries like Laos had led to the suppression of Brahmanical traditions, causing the decline in knowledge about the Ramayana. Thus, when the demolition of the vihaan came about, the younger people in the monastery had little idea about what the murals represented.
“Thankfully, before the demolition, photographs had been taken of the murals by various scholars, including myself. I had published these in my book, The Ram Jataka in Laos. Potkin has studied these various works and tried to digitally replicate the murals,” says Sachchidanand Sahai, national professor (epigraphy), Archaeological Survey of India, who will be chairing the lecture. “These 33 murals are extremely significant as nowhere else in Laos can you find the entire depiction of the Ramayana.” Sahai, a Padma Shri recipient, is considered an authority on Ramayana in Southeast Asia and has been an advisor to the government of Cambodia for the restoration of Angkor Wat.
While the pre-demolition documentation was extensive but unsophisticated — in analog, still and video formats — Potkin’s project, being carried out by the Digital Conservation Facility, Laos, affiliated with the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Illinois, is making use of superior interactive visualisation and virtual reality technologies. In 2011, Potkin and his team managed to digitally replicate the murals. Compared to the originals, that were spread over four walls, the replicated versions are nearly identical in size and orientation, but are adjusted to fit within the three available walls. Also, a project was started in 2012 to digitise the 2,000-page palm leaf manuscript of the Phra Lak Phra Lam (the story of Ram and Lakshman) in its original Tham script format. It is now being re-set by several Oub Mong monks into a searchable, unicode-compliant modern Lao font.
It is interesting to note that the Phra Lak Phra Lam states that Ram was born in the Mekong valley. According to Sahai, it draws cultural parallels between the Ganges and Mekong. As per the Laotian version, Ravana was born in Cambodia and the great war was fought on the banks of Mekong. This is a classic example of how the Khmer, Laotian and Thai civilisations made the Ramayana their own. Potkin’s project seeks to keep the vibrant renditions of this grand epic intact, ensuring the flow of knowledge from generation to generation. “We should learn a lesson from this project. In India, we keep searching for the ancient. But we forget that even the modern heritage needs to be conserved. It is these modern masterpieces that remind us of the stories of our past,” says Sahai.